Do we really need Angelina Jolie?
By— June 11, 2014
Everyone keeps asking me if we need Angelina Jolie. Leading up to the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which Jolie and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague are chairing in London this week, they want to know whether she is useful to this cause. I’ve been thinking a lot about this—whether a celebrity loaning her status and name to something like this issue is ultimately good or bad. I’ve been searching for an answer. And I think I’ve found it.
My pursuit begins in a damp room in mineral-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where a girl in green named Mireille sits holding a small baby in her arms. She is crying as she describes how at 16, a group of militants under the leadership of a man named Morgan—famous for mutilating women, cutting off their vaginas and marking circles around their mouths—took Mireille. They held her for eight months in the bush, where, she says, she was raped by so many men that she doesn’t know who the father is of the baby in her arms. “What will I do when he asks who his father is?” she asks. Through tears that become choking, she describes how she owns nothing more than the clothes on her back. “Who will help me now?” she sobs.
A psychologist treating Mireille tells me her future is dire. There is no hopeful ending to her situation. There is no miraculous money about to float out of the sky to feed and clothe herself and her son. There is no easy salve to soothe her deep, suppurating mental wounds.
(Just a few weeks later, Morgan would be captured and killed by government forces. This, as everything else done by the military in Congo to stop its war, does nothing to help Mireille.)
Then, over in southern Turkey, where the wind gusts vigorously between the porous Syria-Turkey border, there is a teenaged Syrian girl who has had a complete mental collapse. I don’t meet her, but I sit in a hot, bright hospital office downstairs from where I suspect she is being treated. There, I learn these facts about her case:
Held in the basement of a private house in Idlib, a town in the northwest of Syria, eight shabiha (plainclothes militia) members raped and tortured her for seven or eight days in retribution for an alleged family connection to the Free Syrian Army. When she arrived across the border with two black eyes, signs of sexual assault on her were “very clear”—as were cigarette burns on her body—and she had lesions on her vagina. Men, she said, had ejaculated on her and had used hot metal rods to burn her arms, legs, and thighs.
“She gets very agitated every time she tells her story,” a hospital administrator says. He asks whether I might be able to connect her to psychological help since there is next to none in the region. Even by Skype, he begs.
Then there is one story that actually keeps me up at night.
Inside Syria right now, in Idlib, there is a woman who has been raped while in detention. She is “free” now, but that freedom is relative, an activist who has documented her case tells me. After her release, the woman made her way home, where her husband promptly divorced her. She went to live with her father instead. He, I understand, keeps her locked inside the house. He is said to tell her occasionally, “I wish you had died.”
For a break from the nightmarish heartbreak of these survivors, I decided to look for an answer on our own website: We have stories on victim-blaming, impunity for crimes of rape in war, and an utter failure to protect civilians from sexualized violence—even on the part of peacekeepers. We have stories about the ethnically motivated rape of women in South Sudan and Burma, and the terror being perpetrated in the Central African Republic and Sri Lanka.
A couple years ago, I met Jolie briefly in the UK. I’d been asked to present our work documenting sexualized violence in Syria to Hague and others dedicated to this issue. She listened intently and said nothing. Since, I’ve heard her speak out multiple times for survivors who are not able to speak for themselves or able to obtain the global reach their stories so dearly need. Whether they are living a difficult life trying to raise a baby from rape, as Mireille, or they are unable to even step outside a hospital room, as the girl in southern Turkey, or they are being forbidden from living a life of recovery and freedom as the woman in Idlib, she is speaking for them by saying she supports this cause.
Jolie’s stratospheric visibility is making these women and girls visible.
For that simple fact alone, I believe we need Angelina Jolie, just as we need the investigators, the prosecutors, the philanthropists, the advocates, and the journalists. Because the attention economy for truly caring about suffering is tiny (as is the funding for efforts to help), we need Angelina Jolie. It is with her help, her devotion to the suffering of women who cannot leave their houses because of the intense stigma of rape, that we can bring attention to this issue. Now we just need governments to take on the complex problems that lead to rape in war and the needs of survivors after the fact. Until they do, Angelina Jolie, we need you.
For more stories about the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, see:
"Siege talks to BBC about the UK summit: ‘Listen to the grassroots organizers,’" by WMC's Women Under Siege
"Ignoring the evidence at the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit," by Amelia Hoover Green
"UK summit on sexualized violence: ‘A time warp in the wrong direction,'" by Jody Williams